The pandemic has been a turbulent rollercoaster for many independent schools across the country and the road is still long. School closures and a sudden demand from parents for first-class remote learning was just the tip of the iceberg.
Not to mention safely supporting pupils of key workers, managing staff, retaining fees, keeping on top of pupil wellbeing (from a distance) and much more. Then came the phased return to school for some year groups, the implementation of social distancing measures and an array of drastic changes to the way schools operate day-to-day.
Yet schools all over the country have risen to the challenges presented with professionalism and speed, arguably learning many valuable lessons along the way. But the impact of the pandemic is far from over for independent schools, with many beginning to adopt a range of strategic steps to improve stability for the future.
Shining a new light
When coronavirus first hit, many independent schools saw an immediate drop in admissions particularly from overseas applicants; and that is set to continue with uncertainty around travel. But the admirable way in which these schools quickly implemented high-level, robust remote learning programmes during the peak of the crisis, has shone a new light on the value of independent education.
Some independent schools have even seen an increased market interest for day pupils, especially in younger years and pre-prep age groups. It’s no secret that younger children struggled to adapt to home schooling and the way independent schools adapted to ensure those children maintained a routine is a possible driver for this surge.
Some schools have also seen a spike in the number of London families looking to move out of the capital to more rural areas in response to the pandemic.
Independent schools have suffered financially too, with many parents losing income during the crisis putting their future ability to pay fees at risk. Many schools have offered help to those parents via temporary discounts to fees and payment by instalment plans; and some have assisted with hardship funding initiatives. Yet given the prolonged uncertainty surrounding finances, schools will need to become more agile and flexible to adapt their strategies and business models moving forward.
Clear messages with parents in mind
The idea of reducing fees for the short term is not enough to secure a robust, secure pupil roll for the future. Many parents affected by financial hardship will not have clear visibility of when their situation will improve, as it is dependent on many factors.
Parents need clear messages when it comes to the security of educating their children. Reducing and freezing school fees for at least one year is something lots of schools are doing. Many are considering a permanent reduction in day fees to entice greater admissions during this period of uncertainty.
Parents will have made the choice to privately educate their child and for the most part, they want this to continue
Fees must be reflective of the economy, the parent community and also the prospective parent market. This means more regular reviewing of fee structures for the long term to ensure they are in line with the parent body and current affordability.
It is important to get the right pupil mix and fees are an important part of this to avoid the silos of the very elite and those needing a great deal of assistance. Part of this is about empathy but it is also about collaboration and unity, about working together as a community to ensure stability for the future.
Of course, building a robust future is about much more than fees. It is about ensuring that private schools are offering as much as they can both in and outside of the classroom to families. Top academic tuition is an expectation of any public school but co-curricular and extra-curricular activities play a key role in the development of a well-rounded child, particularly at prep school age.
Trust and a sense of compassion
Parents will have made the choice to privately educate their child and for the most part, they want this to continue. For schools, they will need to get smarter in building trust and managing parent relationships with a sense of compassion and care. It is vital that schools listen to their parent body and widen the lines of communication if they are to deliver education that is fit for purpose and attainable.
Communication methods have changed over recent months and video calls have become the norm for catching up as well as more formal ‘distanced’ meetings. Equally, ensuring stability is about planning for the immediate future because life, as we know, can change quickly and without warning.
Schools need to be prepared for a second wave and another bout of on and offline blended learning, whether this is during a lockdown situation or for those children who can’t be in school for travel or isolation reasons.
These are uncharted times for all independent schools, and trust between parent and school is crucial. Tutors, teachers and house parents must communicate on a daily basis with the children via email and video meets if necessary, and house parents and headteachers should have been in touch with all parents directly to check on the child and the family both in terms of the academic side of things and, most importantly, wellbeing.
Striking the right balance
Becoming leaner and more agile is likely to become a necessity for private schools moving forward. Schools will also need to find the balance between managing their costs more effectively and not ‘cutting back’ too much. Building a stable model for the future means having the parent perspective in mind and ensuring that children are getting the best holistic education on every level.
When making the necessary cutbacks or reductions to services, or indeed changes to staff, it’s important for schools to communicate the reasons behind any changes as soon as possible and also ensure they highlight the benefits to their parent community. Trust is key and great, timely communication is at the heart of that trust now more than ever.
Windlesham House School is an independent day and boarding prep school for boys and girls aged 4–13 years in West Sussex.